My husband walked into the house today with a heavy box from the University of Alabama Press.
What was inside?
Several copies of the Fall 2017 issue of Alabama Heritage magazine. Among the stories is an article I wrote. The article concerns the historical actors in Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015), a book about white men’s emotional and financial investments in an unlikely group: enslaved women and children.
The beautiful illustrations the magazine selected put on display our messy shared past. Among them are illustrations of nineteenth century politicians like New York Senator William Seward, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and Alabama Senator Clement Claiborne Clay. All of these men were consulted about the best place to relocate the children from one Huntsville , Alabama, who were freed by their masters.
Telling of this mess – and by mess, I mean, among others things, that interracial ties, coerced or not, were as difficult to discuss then as it is now – is a copy of an 1861 letter from Elizabeth Townsend. She was one of several children freed on the eve of the Civil War. Her deceased father Edmund Townsend had been a white Huntsville planter. Her mother was a free black woman. In 1861, just a few weeks after the Civil War began, Townsend wrote her brother from Xenia, OH. There, she attended Wilberforce with her cousins and sibling, all newly freed, too. Septimus Cabaniss, a Huntsville lawyer and later, a Confederate politician, oversaw the settlement of a $200,000 estate, worth $5.1 million in today’s currency, that would be distributed to Townsend and her freed kin. Their case is extreme, but likely not as unusual as one might think.
I’ve addressed this research several times on this blog and at various talks. Just wanted to share again. I am especially grateful to share this work with readers beyond academic circles. The women and girls in the Townsend family also appear in an essay in a newly released edited collection published by the University of Georgia Press.